keyed bugle

Also:       key bugle      Kent bugle      Royal Kent bugle      Kent horn      bugle à clefs      cor à clefs      Klappenhorn      Klappenflügelhorn      cornetta a chiavi      

Title: Trumpet Collection—Arietta and Walter, by Sir Henry Bishop; Jonathan Impett, keyed bugle, and Paul Nicholson, fortepiano. Label: Amon Ra. Format: CD. Catalogue#: CD-Sar 30. Track: 5.

Contextual Associations

The keyed bugle is a vented lip-reed aerophone of nineteenth-century Europe. The specimen pictured and described here is pitched in C in the soprano register, with a range roughly comparable to a modern B-flat trumpet or cornet. Not long after the five-key model of this instrument was patented in 1810, its basic design idea (a venting, keyed brass instrument) began to be realized in other ranges including a higher-pitched E-flat model and, by the early 1820s in France, tenor and bass ranges, these latter two instruments being referred to as ophicleides. Being the first truly chromatic soprano-register brass instrument, it was of immediate interest to military bands of its times, which heretofore had included a few natural bugles and trumpets incapable of rendering melodies other than fanfares. Although it was never incorporated into the orchestra, keyed bugles were used extensively in European military bands between the 1810s and 1840s and were also integrated into civilian dance bands of that period as both an ensemble and solo instrument. A few years after its patenting in the United Kingdom, the first piston-valve designs for brass instruments were invented. Over the ensuing four decades as valve designs developed and became standardized, their increasing popularity eventually won out over that of the keyed bugle. By the mid-1860s the takeover of piston-valve instruments was complete and the keyed bugle fell into disuse. However, in the course of its half-century life the instrument contributed significantly to the creation of brass band traditions on both sides of the Atlantic. Today, there exist a few professional and amateur enthusiasts for the keyed bugle in the United States, with perhaps their main performance setting being Civil War re-enactment bands. The date of manufacture and the maker of the six-key bugle pictured and described here is not known, but the “Royal Kent Bugle” engraving on its bell (detail#2) suggests it was made in the United Kingdom perhaps as early as the 1810s. 


The body of this keyed bugle is a 46.5-inch-long conical-shaped tube of sheet copper that has been given two folds/bends to form a single coil (see detail #1). Its terminal end has been given a flaring bell. The first six inches of the leadpipe has been strengthened with plate brass, and the rim of the bell has been reinforced with a garland also of brass (see detail #3). The bell-half of the tube has been punctured with six circular vent holes of varying diameters (from .7 to 1.4 inches), each hole given a short vertical wall, called a chimney, made of brass. The chimney of each vent hole is given a circular brass key the bottom face of which has a pad glued to it made of leather with its suede-side left exposed. Each key has a long brass stem that runs through a mount, also of brass, that is soldered to the outside surface of the tube. This lever pivots on a small screw that connects it to its mount, and the keypad when at rest is held in either a closed (for five of the keys) or open position (for the largest key, closest to the bell) by a small steel metal spring on the underside of the lever. The bottom side of the touch-end of each key stem has cork glued to it to prevent metal-against metal contact when operating the key. All these components of a key can be seen in detail #4. The dual needs of holding the instrument and operating four of its keys all with the right hand necessitates the addition of a brass saddle and some creative key-stem shaping to make everything work (detail #5). A brass mouthpiece (detail #6) with a broad and thin rim and a cone-shaped cup is inserted into the leadpipe end of the instrument’s body.

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

The performer can be either standing or seated when performing the keyed bugle. The instrument is positioned in front of the performer so that the mouthpiece touches the performer’s lips and the bell is facing outwards toward the audience. Both hands assist in holding and operating the keys. The right hand supports most of the instrument’s weight with the middle finger placed over the saddle and the thumb hooked around the leadpipe and the tubing just after the second bend. Four digits operate key touches—the little finger the largest key that is closest to the bell, the ring finger the next vent hole key, the index finger the third key up from the bell, and the thumb the fourth key. The left hand is used to steady the instrument mostly by supporting some of its weight with the top of the little finger. The thumb and index finger of this hand operate the pads for the two smallest-diameter vent holes, which or located on the second bend of the tubing. This instrument is pitched in C. Its range is from B3 to C6, over which it is fully chromatic except the pitch E-flat4 cannot be produced. The larger vent holes close to the bell, when open, produce fundamentals (not used musically) above which consecutive partials in the harmonic series can be produced; this is not so with the smaller vent holes located further away from the bell-end of the instrument. While many notes can be produced with a single open vent hole, a number require opening two vent holes to produce a reasonably in-tune pitch. A very mellow tone quality, in comparison to the trumpet, is produced on this instrument, largely due to its conical mouthpiece cup, its wide initial bore diameter, and the pronounced conical shape of its enclosed air cavity. 


The first patent for the keyed bugle was taken out in 1810 by Joseph Haliday (also spelled Halliday) of Ireland. Like for so many other instruments, this credit for invention is not without challenges. For example, ten years earlier a London instrument maker, George Astor, announced the manufacture of a bugle with fingerholes and keys (see Lasocki 2009, pp. 14-21 for a detailed discussion of the keyed bugle’s immediate predecessors). None of his instruments have survived. Within two years of Haliday’s patent, he added a sixth key (basically the same design as the instrument described here) and his instrument had come to be known as the Royal Kent bugle (see ibid. pp. 39-40 for details). The following decade of this instrument’s history can be described as one of legal battles between individuals, manufacturers, and distributors to secure and protect exclusive rights to provision British military bands with keyed bugles. During this tumultuous period, the keyed bugle was introduced to continental Europe and the United States (by 1815) where instrument makers designed and manufactured their own versions of the instrument over the next half century, some with as many as twelve keys. Although the keyed bugle was an immediate success and taken up by military bands and concert soloists, in 1813 the first patent for a piston valve was filed. While this did not immediately challenge the popularity of the keyed bugle, over the next few decades as piston-valve designs for cornets and trumpets improved, interest in the keyed bugle began to wane. By 1865, piston valve instruments had pretty much superseded all vented brass instruments, including the keyed bugle. The flugelhorn, which has the bore design of the keyed bugle but is outfitted with piston or rotary valves instead of key-covered vent holes, is viewed as the primary surviving descendent of the keyed bugle.

Bibliographic Citations

Dudgeon, Ralph T. 1997. “Keyed Brass,” in Herbert, Trevor, and John Wallace, eds., The Cambridge Companion to Brass Instruments. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 131-142.

________. 2004. The Keyed Bugle. 2nd ed. Lanham, Maryland: The Scarecrow Press, Inc.

________. 2014. “Keyed bugle.” GDMI v.3: 144-146.

Eliason, Robert E. 1972. Keyed Bugles in the United States. City of Washington: Smithsonian Institute Press.

Lasocki, David. 2009. “New Light on the Early History of the Keyed Bugle Part I: The Astor Advertisement and Collins v. Green,” Historic Brass Society Journal 21: 1-50.


Instrument Information


Continent: Europe

Region: Northern Europe

Nation: Ireland

Formation: cosmopolitan (Euro-American)

Classification (Sachs-Von Hornbostel revised by MIMO)

423.213 aerophone--end-blown chromatic labrosone with wide conical bore and vent holes

Design and Playing Features

Category: aerophone

Air cavity design: tubular - conical with flaring open distal end

Source and direction of airstream: player exhalation through mouth into air cavity; unidirectional

Energy transducer that activates sound: lip reed (player’s lips) placed over cup mouthpiece at end of tube

Means of modifying shape and dimensions of standing wave in air cavity: opening fingerholes to reduce space or shorten length of standing wave in air cavity

Overblowing utilization: overblowing at consecutive partials

Pitch production: multiple pitches - changing length of standing wave within cavity with fingerholes and by selecting partials through overblowing


18.5 in. length (with mouthpiece) 5.8 in. diameter of bell .5 in. diameter of bore (at mouthpiece end)

Primary Materials

metal - sheet
leather - tanned
spring - flat and/or needle


Joseph Haliday (inventor)



Entry Author

Roger Vetter